United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Debbie McKenzie filed this action on October 14, 2013, pursuant to Title XVI of Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act. Ms. McKenzie seeks judicial review of a final adverse decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The Commissioner affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's denial of Ms. McKenzie's claims for a period of disability and supplemental security income ("SSI"). For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The scope of review in this matter is limited. "When, as in this case, the ALJ denies benefits and the Appeals Council denies review, " the Court "review[s] the ALJ's factual findings with deference' and his legal conclusions with close scrutiny.'" Riggs v. Soc. Sec. Admin., Comm'r, 522 Fed.Appx. 509, 510-11 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Doughty v. Apfel, 245 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001)).
The Court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the findings of the Commissioner. "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla and is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Crawford v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 363 F.3d 1155, 1158 (11th Cir. 2004). In making this evaluation, the Court may not "reweigh the evidence or decide the facts anew, " and the Court must "defer to the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence even if the evidence may preponderate against it." Gaskin v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 533 Fed.Appx. 929, 930 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.2d 1206, 1210 (11th Cir. 2005)).
With respect to the ALJ's legal conclusions, the Court must determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards. If the Court finds an error in the ALJ's application of the law, or if the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide sufficient reasoning to demonstrate that the ALJ conducted a proper legal analysis, then the Court must reverse the ALJ's decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).
II. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Ms. McKenzie alleges that her disability began on October 15, 2003. (Doc. 6-6, p. 4). Ms. McKenzie first applied for social security income benefits on June 10, 2011. (Doc. 6-3, p. 16). The Social Security Administration denied Ms. McKenzie's application on October 5, 2011. (Doc. 6-4, pp. 36-37). At Ms. McKenzie's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a video hearing on April 9, 2012. (Doc. 6-3, p. 13). At the time of the hearing, Ms. McKenzie was 50 years old. (Doc. 6-6, p. 4). Ms. McKenzie has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a general office clerk. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 28, 56-57).
On June 29, 2012, the ALJ denied Ms. McKenzie's request for disability benefits, concluding that Ms. McKenzie is not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 13-29). In his 14-page decision, the ALJ described the "five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled." (Doc. 6-3, pp. 16-18). The ALJ also noted that his decision was the third unfavorable ALJ decision issued to Ms. McKenzie within five years. (Doc. 6-3, p. 16) ("ALJ David Horton denied benefits in July 2010. ALJ Cynthia Brown denied benefits in August 2007.").
The ALJ found that Ms. McKenzie "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 10, 2011, the application date." (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ determined that Ms. McKenzie had "the following severe impairments: morbid obesity, fibromyalgia, disc and joint disease, hiatal hernia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with episodes of asthma and bronchitis, bone spurs, irritable bowel syndrome/diarrhea, depressive disorder, NOS and pain disorder." (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). The ALJ concluded that Ms. McKenzie "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments." (Doc. 6-3, p. 18). In making this finding, the ALJ noted that "[n]o medical expert has concluded that claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment" and that "the treatment records failed to document the type of severe impairment required by the noted listings." (Doc. 6-3, pp. 18, 19). The ALJ also determined that Ms. McKenzie's mental impairment did not meet or medically equal the criteria of listing 12.04. (Doc. 6-3, p. 19). The ALJ found that Ms. McKenzie had mild restriction in the activities of daily living; mild difficulties in social functioning; moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence or pace; and experienced one to two episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (Doc. 6-3, p. 19).
Next, the ALJ calculated Ms. McKenzie's residual functional capacity (RFC). After considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Ms. McKenzie has the RFC to perform light work. (Doc. 6-3, p. 20). The ALJ elaborated:
[T]he claimant can only frequently perform pushing and/or pulling movements with her left upper extremity. She is limited to frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling and crouching. She can only occasionally crawl. She is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs and is to never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She is to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat and wetness. She is to avoid all exposure to unprotected heights. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to environmental irritants. She is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks.
(Doc. 6-3, p. 20). In making this determination, the ALJ considered Ms. McKenzie's symptoms as well as the extent to which the symptoms were reasonably consistent with the objective medical evidence and other opinion evidence. (Doc. 6-3, p. 20).
The ALJ considered the treatment notes from Quality of Life health services, where Ms. McKenzie sought treatment in May 2010 and March 2012. (Doc. 6-3, p. 23). In May 2010, Dr. Carey Goodman assessed Ms. McKenzie with hyperlipidemia and chronic lumbago and advised Ms. McKenzie to eat with discretion and exercise three times a week. (Doc. 6-12, pp. 41-42). In March 2012, Ms. McKenzie presented with a rash, back pain, and joint pain. Dr. Emanuel Joseph assessed chronic pityriasis versicolor, chronic degenerative disc disease, chronic lumbago, chronic hyperlipidemia, and chronic obesity. (Doc. 6-12, pp. 43-46). Although Ms. McKenzie complained of severe, fluctuating pain in her middle back, Dr. Joseph noted no acute distress and a "[n]ormal range of motion, muscle strength, and stability in all extremities with no pain on inspection." (Doc. 6-12, pp. 43, 45).
The ALJ assessed the treatment notes from Ms. McKenzie's emergency room visits in July and December 2010. (Doc. 6-3, p. 24). In July 2010, Ms. McKenzie was diagnosed with atypical chest pain, pleurisy, and bronchitis. (Doc. 6-10, p. 41). Ms. McKenzie was discharged after injections and medications were prescribed. (Doc. 6-10, p. 43). In December 2010, Ms. McKenzie was diagnosed with acute bronchitis, acute pharyngitis, acute otitis media, upper respiratory infection, and acute sinusitis. (Doc. 6-10, p. 23). Ms. McKenzie was prescribed medication and released in stable condition. (Doc. 6-10, p. 23).
The ALJ considered treatment records from Dr. Vishala Chindalore, a rheumatologist who examined Ms. McKenzie in July and August 2011. (Doc. 6-3, pp. 24, 26). In July 2011, Dr. Chindalore assessed Ms. McKenzie with diffuse joint pain with a clinical picture of fibromyalgia and arthritis. (Doc. 6-10, p. 49). Dr. Chindalore prescribed Lyrica and recommended a graded exercise program. (Doc. 6-10, p. 49). Dr. Chindalore also noted that range of motion of multiple joints was painful, that Ms. McKenzie had some back spasms, and that lumbrosacral spine flexion was painful for Ms. McKenzie. (Doc. 6-10, p. 49). In August 2011, Dr. Chindalore noted that Ms. McKenzie's knee had more osteoarthritic changes, but other joints had good range of motion without effusion, and her back was benign. (Doc. 6-12, p. 24). The ALJ emphasized that Dr. Chindalore did not impose substantial restrictions on Ms. McKenzie and in fact endorsed a graded exercise program. (Doc. 6-3, p. 27). The ALJ also stated that Dr. Chindalore's impressions regarding pain have limited evidentiary value given his minimal treatment history with Ms. McKenzie. (Doc. 6-3, p. 28).
Regarding Ms. McKenzie's mental state, the ALJ considered the treatment notes of Dr. Robert Summerlin, a licensed psychologist who on August 11, 2011, examined Ms. McKenzie at the request of the Office of Disability Determinations. (Doc. 6-3, p. 24). Dr. Summerlin assigned Ms. McKenzie a GAF of 70, indicating mild emotional symptoms, and opined that Ms. McKenzie did not have a psychological disorder that would preclude employment. (Doc. 6-10, p. 52). The ALJ gave great weight to Dr. Summerlin's opinion because it was consistent with the medical evidence and Ms. McKenzie's statements that she is able to perform household chores, talk on the phone, drive, shop, watch movies, and bathe and groom herself with minor assistance. (Doc. 6-3, p. 26).
The ALJ also considered the treatment notes of DDS mental health expert Dr. Kirsten Bailey. (Doc. 6-3, p. 25). Dr. Bailey noted a mild restriction of activities of daily living; mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; and moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. (Doc. 6-10, p. 74). Dr. Bailey also opined that Ms. McKenzie was likely to experience one or two episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (Doc. 6-10, p. 74). The ALJ gave limited weight to Dr. Bailey's opinion because Dr. Bailey "did not have the opportunity to examine [Ms. McKenzie], ...